When the state posts enrollment tallies this fall, it’s a safe bet that the three biggest schools in North Carolina will be Ardrey Kell, South Mecklenburg and Myers Park high schools. They’re all south of uptown Charlotte, and each of them draws more than 3,000 students.
So, it’s pretty clear that south Charlotte is overdue for a new high school. When Mecklenburg voters approved $922 million in school bonds in 2017, they actually cleared the way for the southern part of the county to have three new high schools by 2023.
One will go next to Palisades Park Elementary in the county’s southwestern tip. One will be at Waddell, which was built as a high school in the early 2000s, then converted into a K-8 language immersion magnet in 2011. It’s now slated for a $5 million renovation that will turn it back into a high school in 2022.
The location of the third remained a mystery until the week before school started. That’s when people who live near Olde Providence Elementary heard bulldozers rumbling into the woods behind the school.
"A few neighbors came out and asked questions, and word kind of spread pretty quickly," says Kevin Kreutzer, who has a daughter at Olde Providence Elementary.
The answer they got was that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was testing soil to prep the site for a new high school. That came as a shock to neighbors who know that land as a place for children to play and students to explore. A sign at the back of the property labels it the Olde Providence Elementary Outdoor Classroom. It's also known as Olde Providence Park.
"This park has a play set," Kreutzer says. "It has ballfields. It has, obviously, the nature trail through the woods. But if we lose that, there are 5,000 families that won’t have another park within a mile and a half radius."
And there’s the challenge. The growth that’s creating an urgent need for classrooms also makes every remaining bit of undeveloped land more valuable – and not just as green space.
Developers are competing for land that CMS could have snatched up 30 years ago. But CMS doesn’t have to outbid developers for the property behind Olde Providence: The district already owns it.
Former Superintendent Clayton Wilcox had zeroed in on it for the new high school, which would pull students from Ardrey Kell and South Meck. But by the time the bulldozers rolled in for soil testing, Wilcox had been forced out and replaced by Earnest Winston.
"We have land identified at Olde Providence Elementary School, and that’s where we’re looking at," Winston said at an August news conference. "But we’re looking at all options, and so I just want to be very clear: It’s an ongoing process but we have begun some preliminary work."
At that point, school board member Sean Strain had asked Winston to put that work on hold. The problem isn’t just that Olde Providence residents like their woods. It’s that the space available behind Olde Providence isn’t big enough to hold a high school campus, Strain says.
It’s not just about building classrooms for 2,000 students or more. A full-size high school also needs parking lots and athletic fields that can host big games. That kind of space – 50 or 60 acres – is becoming so scarce that CMS officials started talking years ago about a time when comprehensive high schools would become obsolete.
The last ones built were Hough High in Cornelius and Rocky River High in Mint Hill. They opened in 2010. Since then CMS has expanded existing high schools and built smaller alternatives, such as the high schools at UNC Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College campuses.
Strain, the board member who represents south Charlotte, wants to look not just for a bigger site, but one that’s closer to Ardrey Kell and South Meck. Ballantyne would be perfect, says Kreutzer.
Kreutzer says he and his neighbors are lobbying county commissioners to provide money to buy more land before it's all gone.
"Buy some property now," he said, "because the pressure that Charlotte’s under to develop is huge."
Olde Providence residents had lined up CMS staff and elected officials to field questions last week. CMS agreed, but the organizers pulled the plug – not for lack of interest, Kreutzer says, but because so many neighbors wanted to come that they feared the crowd would be unmanageable.
So, for now, the decision is on pause. CMS staff won’t answer questions, saying they just don’t have answers yet. The plan calls for construction to start in spring of 2021 with the opening in August of 2023.